Obama meets Dems without addressing divisive issues; negotiations continue

Obama meets Dems without addressing divisive issues; negotiations continue

President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden calls for unity, jabs at Trump in campaign launch Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again MORE gave Senate Democrats a "pep talk" on healthcare Sunday, telling them they stood to make history if they passed a bill expanding healthcare coverage to millions of Americans.

Obama, during a rare Sunday Democratic caucus in the Senate, said that the healthcare reform bill, which seeks to provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, is "the most important social legislation since Social Security," according to Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.).


Obama told reporters that the meeting was a "pep talk," not a negotiation.

Obama didn't take questions from the senators or mention the two issues now dividing Senate Democrats and preventing passage of the bill: a government-run insurance plan and restrictions on federal funds for abortion. But Democrats said that Obama's remarks gave them a boost as they try to strike compromises to get the 60 votes needed to pass the bill.

"He reminded us why we're here, he reminded us why we run for office and he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through," said Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinLet's stop treating student borrowers like second-class citizens Trump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group MORE (D-Ill.).

Senate Democrats leaving the meeting expressed confidence that they would eventually pass a bill that would help Americans and would help Democrats politically as they enter into a crucial mid-term election year.

If they passed the bill, Democrats would be "rewarded in '10, and in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 and 40," Baucus said. "Nothing's more important."

Obama noted the progress they had made together on healthcare reform, his top legislative priority for most of his 11-month presidency, and on the economy, now growing after a two-year recession and gaining nearly as many jobs as it's losing, senators said after the meeting.

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyWhy Congress needs to bring back tax deduction for worker expenses Biden cements spot as 2020 front-runner The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's bid gets under Trump's skin MORE (D-Pa.) said that Obama's message was most effective when he was "putting into context how important [the healthcare bill] was to the economy and what this means in terms of how people judge this Congress and what happens to us."

Obama said that despite their progress, Democrats should pass healthcare to show Americans that they can tackle big problems, Casey said.

"We tend to forget we've been about as productive a Congress as there's been in a long time, but we've got to get this done to demonstrate that we can get something this substantial done," Casey said.

Baucus said that Democrats would be able to get the 60 votes to invoke cloture on the bill to end debate and eventually pass it. He predicted that would happen within a week or two.

Senate Democratic leaders along with a core group of five centrist and five liberal Democrats have been locked in negotiations over the public option since Friday. Democrats said they're considering a number of compromises on the public option, including one that would put the independent Office of Personnel Management in charge of the new insurance plan instead of the Health and Human Services Department.

Negotiations lasted until 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with senators at one point dining on takeout Chinese food.

"We have had a really intense three hours of discussion and we are not there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but we're finding a good deal of give and take that leads to common ground," Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGetting serious about infrastructure Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act 'SleepyCreepy Joe' and 'Crazy Bernie': Trump seeks to define 2020 Dems with insults MORE (D-N.Y.) said.

Schumer and the members of the group didn't give any specifics about their talks. But Schumer said that the group found "a good deal of common ground" and that staffers would be working hard over the next few days on the proposals.

Schumer sought to portray a united Democratic front with talks expected to continue Monday. As he spoke to reporters, he was flanked by Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (D-W.Va.), one of the biggest proponents of a strong public option, and Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuDems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ Lobbying world Former New Orleans mayor: It's not my 'intention' to run for president MORE (D-La.), a public option skeptic.

But Landrieu and other centrist senators appeared less optimistic than Schumer.

Landrieu said that the group wasn't close to a deal but that she hoped for an agreement in "another a day or two."

"My good friend Sen. Schumer is always optimistic," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another public option opponent. "Probably there is some common ground, and there's certainly some interest in finding significant common ground. It's a tall challenge to try to reach that."

Other senators spotted going in and out of the room were Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownLawmakers grapple with the future of America's workforce The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate On The Money: Mnuchin signals officials won't release Trump tax returns | Trump to hold off on auto tariffs | WH nears deal with Mexico, Canada on metal tariffs | GOP fears trade war fallout for farmers | Warren, regulator spar over Wells Fargo MORE (Ohio), Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses Dems request investigation of lobbyist-turned-EPA employee who met with former boss MORE (Del.), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE (Ark.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

Key centrist senators not involved in the talks dismissed suggestions that the Senate healthcare debate would end soon.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) told The Hill that it's not realistic to expect the bill to be finished in a week.


Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) again criticized the push to include a public option, saying that it would lead to a single-payer healthcare system.

"This bill has so much good in it, it does so much good," Lieberman said. "Why are you insisting on getting a foot in the door on single payer?"

The Senate will likely move sooner on divisive abortion language in the bill.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said that his amendment restricting new federal healthcare funds for abortion is likely to get a vote Tuesday. Nelson said he can't vote for the bill unless it includes that restriction, which was included in the already-passed House bill by centrist Democrats over the objections of most of the House Democratic Caucus.

While Republicans are expected to back Nelson's amendment, most Democrats are expected to oppose it. Nelson told The Hill that he wasn't sure that he would offer an alternative amendment if his initial effort doesn't get the necessary 60 votes for passage.

In the caucus meeting with the president were Vice President Joe BidenJoe Robinette BidenBiden calls for unity, jabs at Trump in campaign launch Here are the potential candidates still eyeing 2020 bids Warren policy ideas show signs of paying off MORE, senior White House adviser David Axelrod, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusKansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? New Dem Kansas gov reinstates protections for LGBT state employees MORE, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle and Phil Schiliro, the assistant to the president for legislative affairs. Obama was the only person to speak, but Biden talked one-on-one with several Democrats, Casey said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act House Dem cites transgender grandson in voting for Equality Act MORE (R-Ky.) criticized the president for meeting only with Democrats and he said that their healthcare effort was now "completely partisan."

"Democrats are trying to squeeze every single one of their members to swallow a pretty bitter pill for the American people," said McConnell, who repeated GOP suggestions that the bill will lead to higher taxes, higher insurance premiums and weaker Medicare programs.

Ben Geman contributed to this report

This story was updated at 8:05 p.m.